May 23, 2022

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Gaining Competitive Advantage through 360° Feedback

Conventionally, we think of feedback as something we get from our immediate supervisor. But Kenning Partner Laurie Burkland Waller explains to Mike Merrill how we can use 360° feedback to broaden our perspective and ultimately provide us a competitive advantage. Laurie describes how Kenning uses both standard tools as well as custom interviews to gather feedback not only from senior leadership but peers and direct reports as well to provide a more comprehensive view of a leader’s performance.

Runner crossing finishing line on track

Determining strengths and opportunities is key, but Laurie notes that a well-conducted review can uncover issues that might derail a leader–for example, an overuse of a strength in a particular situation where it is not warranted. Laurie goes on to explain the importance of pursuing a developmental plan based on what has been learned in the process, and how ongoing coaching can not only help a leader experiment with new ways of working, but find ways to make change stick as well.



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Mike: Hi, I’m Mike Merrill. I’m speaking with Laurie Waller today. Laurie is a partner at Kenning associates. 

Laurie: Hi, Mike, thanks for the invitation to talk about this interesting topic. 

Mike: Why don’t you tell everyone what we’re talking about today?

Laurie: We’re talking about 360 degree feedback. What it’s purpose is, why it’s a competitive advantage to gain access to it, and how it can help leaders of all types.

Mike: Just quickly, what is 360 degree feedback?

Laurie: When we talk about 360 degree feedback, we know it’s often referred to as multi-source or multi-rater feedback, and it gives leaders an opportunity to receive anonymous performance feedback from a variety of colleagues so that they have information on the strengths that they can continue to leverage and a handful of new ideas for development opportunities that may be impactful for them to address.

Mike: Traditionally we think of feedback as being kind of a top-down process. I get an assessment, or I get reviewed, or I get feedback from my boss. And it seems like the 360 degree feedback is an attempt to broaden that scope. What’s the benefit of that? 

Laurie: I would say that it’s in the name, you know, it’s this 360 degrees. This more whole view is what can make the data more valuable to a leader when senior leaders and direct reports can comment on leadership competencies. When peers can comment on collaboration, planning, execution, effectiveness, we’re looking at a lot of different, important topics for success and getting them all woven together in one report, and one review that really allows a leader to see more clearly and have the benefit of choosing to act differently. 

Mike: Let’s say I’m a leader of a team. When would a good time for me to seek this sort of feedback be? 

Laurie: For yourself, it would be a great idea to seek feedback: A: Any time you have an interest in gathering data on your performance when you’re in a place where you’re motivated and interested in building new skills. B: When you are in the range to be considered for a promotion and want to gather new information that might be helpful for you to close any development gaps so that you can address them and be a stronger candidate for that promotion.

Mike: What are some of the tools that you use to gather this data? 

Laurie: 360 degree feedback definitely shouldn’t be a one size fits all approach. We find that a custom process works best and should match. What the leader’s objectives are. We can use online instruments that collect and summarize data automatically, or we can do more of an open-ended interview based approach, where we gather specific information based on the leader’s goals and really customize the approach for them.

Mike: What are some of the specific instruments that are often used for 360 feedback. 

Laurie: We use a variety, including whatever our clients ask us to use. I would say most recently we’ve spent time with Korn Ferry 360, with the Leadership Circle Profile, and recently Culture Amp. Those tools can have specific benefits. Usually big competency libraries or architectures of technical and functional skills. Those can be the right solution very often, but most of the time we recommend more of that personal open-ended interview style because we think that it matches the customization approach better, where we can really dig into questions related to our leader’s professional development goals.

Mike: Let’s say I’m a leader and now you’re going to help me gather 360 degree feedback. How do I determine who I should have you speak to?

Laurie: It’s a great question. And it’s an answer we want our leader to be in control of. Routinely we’re looking for a handful of direct reports, a handful of peers, and a handful of more senior leaders to round out the perspective. We occasionally even ask our leaders to ask other stakeholders or even customers or clients to participate.

Generally, the rule is to ask participants that they want to hear from. Participants who have enough information about the leader to provide good content, people that the leader respects that they really want information and feedback from. Kenning Associates really asks each leader to solicit that feedback directly.

We have our leaders send the emails or make the phone calls to make introductions between colleagues and coaches, in the hopes that they play more of a driver seat role in setting the context for the 360, and we find that sets our leaders up for success and ownership over the process. 

Mike: Now I’ve identified the leaders for you. You’ve helped gather the information, probably through a combination of some sort of online tool or inventory and some personal discussions with the people that I’ve chosen. 

Laurie: Yeah. We often will do a hybrid of the two or we’ll do one or the other. Most routinely we find that the open-ended interview question approach is really significant and really meaningful. So we would schedule those conversations, take about a half hour of each participant’s time and really outline strengths to continue to leverage, and development opportunities that the leader should consider. 

Mike: What are some of the things you think about as you conduct these interviews?

Laurie: As an experienced 360 feedback interviewer, it’s really important to me that I ask really good questions in the interviews to get really good answers so that I can pass along good data to the leader. I often ask, what is the current behavior and why is that a shortcoming? So I can really understand the missed opportunity. 

And then I asked for specific ideas for growth, including behaviors, soundbites, mindsets that would really illustrate the picture for the leader about why change would be beneficial. And I would say that having that story and those elements of it when presenting it in a report can really open the mind of the leader to possibilities that they might not have seen before. 

When people can see how their current results will keep them at the same level of performance or gain and see the difference between what they could act on and what they could get as a result, that’s where things really get their attention and motivate them to potentially try something new. 

Mike: So once you finish that work, you come back to me. What do I get?

Laurie: The output of the interview is as an anonymous report that has synthesized themes and opportunities for the leader to consider. It’s filled with actionable feedback, plenty of development ideas, and again, reinforcement of all the things that are working so well already. 

Mike: So I get the report, what do I do with it? What do we do with it together? Maybe it’s the better question. 

Laurie: That report is written in a way that is intended to be really clear on mindsets to consider, actions and behaviors to develop, and it when written really well communicates how impactful it will be for the leader to act on those suggestions.

So we know that the right next step is to assist in the developmental planning, the prioritization of those ideas and the buy-in of the leader to see how it could really benefit them to act on those recommendations. 

Laurie, do you have an example of, I get my report back, what’s a development path, maybe that you’ve seen that’s useful for somebody. 

Laurie: I see development opportunities all across the spectrum of competencies from decision-making to stepping into leadership roles and dropping more individual contributor roles that had been the sweet spot in the past to building relationships, to developing talent on teams, even into developing a more clear external brand.

So the span is really broad and wide of what shows up. And what’s really wonderful in a custom cutting associates approach is to filter the questions and responses based on what the leader wants most. If they want upward mobility they will ask questions on how to get there. If they want an improved brand and reputation, we’ll ask questions and gather data more with that lens.

So it can really be broad, in terms of what we ask for, but it should be specific based on what the leader wants 

Mike: What are some of the challenges to the 360 degree feedback process that you’ve seen? 

Laurie: It can be really vulnerable for a leader to stick out their neck and ask for feedback from their colleagues. So it’s really important that we work hard to make them feel safe and supported. One of the things we do is make sure it’s not behind the leader’s back. And I mentioned that by having the leader ask participants to be a part of it, that’s one step we take. We also really make sure that in the interviews we ask the participants what they can do personally to help the leader make progress against the goals that came up in that conversation.

So we’ll ask those colleagues what obstacles can you remove? What changes in your own behavior would help the leader act on your ideas? What are other ways that you could pave the path forward for them to help them grow? So all of those things help the leader to feel less vulnerable because they can see more of a team effort in helping them grow.

A really high quality 360 degree feedback report helps the client understand the benefit of adapting to the opportunity presented. It can be difficult for a leader to see some types of feedback, especially if it doesn’t match their self perception. So a well presented report shows them the downside of staying at their current performance level or style or approach and shows the value or benefit of adopting the new feedback. 

Mike: What sorts of things do we discover during this process? I assume people discover some of the things that they are stronger and weaker at, but are there other things they discover as well? 

Laurie: Very routinely the feedback that comes from colleagues can be more about style than competency. Well, we have another podcast on this topic of leadership versatility. If the feedback comes up enough, we identify differences and discrepancies in style preferences among team members. A classic example would be when colleagues speak up and say, this leader is way too direct. They can be too assertive, too authoritative, and I’d really like them to pull that back.

We need to watch for the subjectivity level there, question that style against certain moments or requirements in the job, but also address that there could be incompatibility among team members. Oftentimes we’ll unearth that conversations need to happen between pairs or trios or small groups about style differences.

Sometimes we’ll uncover some cultural assessment needs. That needs to be addressed in the organization. Other times we’ll find really good topics that could be part of the next leadership team offsite to address style differences. So that’s something that can be uncovered in the process. 

Mike: So in the 360 degree feedback, I’ve discovered that others perceived my style as being overly authoritative, overly direct. What could I do about it? 

Laurie: Yeah, that’s uncovering a style difference between the leader’s approach and maybe what the colleague prefers. So that can begin a dialogue that supports the development of interpersonal relationships and approaches. We certainly would work with a leader to identify when to use certain styles, whether in a context or with an audience. And we would also address if the pair of colleagues needed to address different needs and demands that they find more successful.

So it can lead to good conversations around interpersonal dynamics or even misperceptions. 

Mike: Is there anything else that a 360 degree feedback could uncover for a leader? 

Laurie: So another element that can show up is overused strengths. This is when leaders overplay a strength, such that it transitions into a weakness. An example that we often uncover would be when the strength of determination starts to show up as stubbornness. Another example we’ll see is when a decisiveness can become dictatorial, often a results orientation can be overused or overplayed and become all about tasks, not about people or relationships.

Mike: This is something I’ve heard from other Kenning partners that often a leader’s strengths are also their weakness and it’s a little bit paradoxical maybe. But it’s something that leaders who develop their skills learn to attend to.

Laurie: So that is a second thing that can show up and be uncovered in the process that’s really meaningful. There’s a third. And that is when we discover possible career stallers or derailers. Dynamics like overdependence on a single advocate or overdependence on a single skill for success, maybe failure to build a team, even getting into the weeds when the role is to stay at a strategic high altitude. 

We want to monitor for the present and the near term future as well as the long-term future. And we find when some of these weaknesses are unchecked, it can really put a block in a leader’s path forward. So we’re looking for some of those things as well.  

Mike: Laurie, do you have times when someone sees this 360 degree feedback where they don’t immediately accept it, or maybe even they object to it. 

Laurie: Mike, you’ve asked me about when I’ve seen objections to feedback that’s been presented. And I have to say that there’s an element of quality and writing up the report that can prevent that. I mentioned that as long as there’s clarity on what you can do differently, and what better results you’ll get, that usually encourages people to at least give it a shot, give it some thought. 

When a high quality report gives actionable ideas for what to say differently, what to do differently, what tools to employ. When it’s presented as a possibility and when a coach and client talk about how to implement some of these ideas and an experimental way, Hey, why not try it for two weeks?

See if you see some results. Hey, why not test that out in this low risk, safe environment? Most people are really receptive to ideas that they might have been closed to previously. 

Mike: That sounds like a process that can really help a leader understand who they are and what some of the strengths and weaknesses are. And even sometimes some of their strengths that they’re overusing. I think you go a step further though, and you have suggested that the 360 degree feedback can be a way to build a competitive advantage for yourself. 

Laurie:  It can absolutely be an opportunity for a competitive advantage. Leaders are hard-working, busy people without a lot of time for reflection. So to get data and make decisions based on good data is a really important advantage for charting their path forward.

They, through a 360, can get a broader perspective of how they’re perceived by others and can use that to decide if they want to make a change. They can get a more well-rounded view of their performance beyond just their performance review or competency model in their organization. Sometimes even expanding the data they have, not just from their immediate supervisor. 

And it is often perceived to be more valid and objective than performance reviews. So getting access to these results, maybe having more motivation to act on them are all elements toward a competitive advantage. 

Mike: You’ve gathered the feedback, you’ve put together the report, you’ve delivered it to the leader. How do you follow up now? What do you do next?

Laurie: So while the 360 degree process and report, including the interpretation of it are important, what is equally important is developing a plan forward for how to put that into use.

So this is very often where a coaching engagement of developmental support is meaningful. together with our clients we define specific goals and corresponding action plans and metrics that are results oriented, that are resource enabled, that are time bound. And we help them to see the different environments where they could practice some of this feedback and start to build these skills. 

In an ongoing coaching relationship. We can provide that accountability to keep moving forward and we can provide those safe conversations to reflect on different trials, to see what should stay and see what should go.

That partnership is really key to the ongoing development because it contracts success, celebrates progress, and continues to troubleshoot the challenges. So we find that. Ongoing partnership really helps the change to stick, helps the experiments to happen and get the results to be more tangible. 

Mike: Do you have an example of where this data helped a leader?

Laurie: I’ve worked with a leader recently in technology consulting, who has such a love for coding that it has been really difficult to step into practice leadership and not dive deep into the coding. But when we found ways for that to become a potential pet project a week per quarter, to dive deep into those details, close out all other leadership responsibilities and have access to something that’s so enjoyable.

We were able to keep the leader at the appropriate high altitude level for strategic thinking for team talent development for client service, without that tug weekly, to get into the details. That was the solution we identified that really helped the leader let go of an overused strength, of an interest that no longer matched the job description, and really perform at the level that was needed.

Mike: In this case, the leader really enjoyed coding so much it was hard for the leader to pay attention to the things that the leader was now required to pay attention to. The leader wanted to stay focused on the coding and the details, the 360 degree feedback helped the leader raise their own vision up so that they could look out across and be more strategic in their thinking on a regular basis.

Laurie: Exactly. One of the other things that shows up routinely in 360 degree feedback is how close the feedback is to the leader’s self view. This is an element of emotional intelligence where we really want leaders to have a pretty accurate snapshot of performance and perception of others. So very often in the 360s’, we’ll also ask the leader to do some self-assessment.

What are their strengths? What are their growth areas? With the specific questions related to their targeted performance level. And we compare that to what they saw from their colleagues in hopes of keeping that gap really close.

Mike: We’ve talked a bit about the confidentiality of the feedback that’s given. That seems to be important. 

Laurie: While the participants aren’t anonymous, the content that they provide does need to be confidential. And so it’s really important to develop trust with both the interviewees and the leader. One way to do that is to make sure there are enough participants to provide that level of anonymity.

It’s important that during the interviews, the facilitator asks along the way, which of the elements you’ve provided can be presented clearly and bluntly, which of these items could be potentially tied back to you that would need to be more camouflaged than other data you’ve provided, or might even any of this information need to be off the record just for the coach or the facilitator’s own knowing. 

We find that the relationship between the interview participants and a leader is number one that cannot be compromised in any way. So that maintaining of confidentiality, that care and caution of how feedback is used, packaged and returned is really critical to developing trust and to making the exercise fruitful. 

Mike: How do you know if this process has gone well? 

Laurie: Well, the ultimate compliment and signal that we’re doing these interviews right, is when a participant or an interviewee says, I love the respect you have shown for my colleague. I appreciate the level of preparation you took. The questions were insightful and spot on. You treated this person with tremendous respect. I would really trust you to do this exercise for me. And would you? 

So it is a sign that we’re really doing things right when anyone involved in the process knows that we’ve treated the leader, their reputation, their opportunities for growth, with tremendous respect, such that others would like us to do the same for them.

Mike: We’ve spoken today about the individual leader getting their individual 360 degree feedback, but I think in your work you’ve also provided 360 degree feedback for entire teams. Can you talk about that? And what’s the value of that? 

Laurie: It can be really meaningful when many members of a leadership team are getting this type of feedback around the same time. It certainly is an investment in time to participate in the process. 

But when there’s a simultaneous effort to understand where people’s strengths and growth areas are, it can lead to systemic growth and change. It can lead to new norms, new operating agreements, new sort of peer support for growth that can make for meaningful change, sort of all at once. 

Mike: Laurie, you’ve been working with Kenning Associates for several years. What distinguishes the way Kenning approaches 360 degree feedback compared to other providers?

Laurie: A good facilitator of a 360 degree feedback exercise would just get at strengths and growth areas. But at Kenning we take things further. We’re looking for context for the organization’s needs. We’re looking for context for the leaders and teams needs. We’re screening for overused strengths, we’re screening for missed opportunities to achieve the next level of performance. And so that thoughtfulness and that experience goes a long way in putting together a thoughtful, actionable report that leaders can really use and get that competitive advantage that they’re seeing.

Mike: Laurie, what role does this 360 degree feedback process play in your larger coaching practice?

Laurie: People ask me all the time. What is it that you’re doing for leaders as a coach consultant advisor, and how does a 360 degree feedback effort fit into that? And I tell them there are three metrics that I am dogged in my approach to get my clients. A boost to their performance, increased satisfaction, and enhanced sustainability to be able to do it all again next week. And I find that a 360 degree feedback effort gives them rich data that they can choose to accept, reject, negotiate, and act on really helping them make progress toward those three metrics.

Mike: Laurie, thank you. 

Laurie: It’s such a pleasure to talk about these topics, Mike, thank you so much for the invitation.